The War In Afghanistan
47 Questions and Answers
and additional links for further Information
By Michael Albert
and Stephen R. Shalom
Oct 14, 2001
In the course of our discussions since the bombing of Afghanistan began, we have encountered certain questions over and over. Here we assemble those questions and provide short answers to each. In some cases we also provide a link or two for additional immediately relevant information or commentary. Much more information can be found via: ZNet's Complete Terrorism & War Coverage.
Also, we have ourselves previously offered September 11 Q/A Talking Points and Five Arguments Against War which provide backdrop for this essay.
1. What is Islamic fundamentalism?
The term "fundamentalist" is used in a number of different ways. One definition is someone who interprets the texts of his or her religion in a literal way or who adheres to the original, traditional practices and beliefs of the religion. Another definition is someone who is intolerant of the views of other religions or sects. These two definitions often overlap -- traditional religions tend to be authoritarian and misogynist, which lend themselves to intolerance -- but they are not the same. (For example, some pacifist religious sects might be fundamentalist in the first sense, but not the second. ) Every religion has its fundamentalists -- Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and so on -- and some of these engage in terrorism.
Fundamentalists in the second sense have been on the rise worldwide. One reason has been the absence in so much of the Third World of a meaningful Left. Without a left alternative to the oppression and alienation of modern capitalism, many have sought solace in the easy explanations and promises of intolerant religion. Left organizations in many Arab and Muslim nations have either been smashed by right-wing forces (often backed by the major Western states) or discredited by ruthless dictatorships (as in Iraq) or Soviet-style parties. In this void, fundamentalism flourished. Fundamentalism was also supported by the opportunism of various states (for example, the United States backed reactionary fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden, against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and aided mullahs against the left in Iran; Israel gave early backing to Hamas in an effort to provide a counter-weight to the secular PLO).
The Taliban, the rulers of most of Afghanistan, adhere to a particularly extreme and intolerant variant of fundamentalist Islam. They came to power out of the in-fighting among the various Mujahedeen (religious warriors) groups following the Soviet withdrawal. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the principal international backers of the Taliban
Pakistani intelligence maintained extremely close ties to the Taliban and Pakistani troops assisted their rise to power. Most Taliban leaders and many of its foot-soldiers were trained in the madrassas -- religious schools -- in Pakistan set up with funding from wealthy Pakistanis, Saudis, and others in the Gulf, which taught a version of the fundamentalist Wahhabism that is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Despite the anti-American and generally reactionary teachings of these madrassas, Pakistan has been a U.S. ally and Saudi Arabia has been one of Washington's closest allies
2. What is the attitude in the Arab and Islamic worlds to (a) the Sept. 11 attacks, and (b) the current US war in Afghanistan?
Every government in the region other than Iraq condemned the September 11 attacks, and even Iraq sent its condolences to the victims. The enormity of the slaughter horrified many people in the region, and there were many deeply felt expressions of sympathy for those who lost their lives. But a large reservoir of anti-Americanism led many people to feel that the United States was finally getting back some of what it deserved, or to believe one of the idiotic conspiracy theories so common in the Middle East (the Israeli Mossad did it, the CIA did it). Among Palestinians, a poll in early October found that two-thirds considered the attacks to violate Islamic law, while a quarter thought them consistent with it. The poll showed Palestinians angry about U.S. foreign policy, but not at Americans.
But even among those who were horrified by the September 11 attacks, most people in the region seem to oppose the war on Afghanistan. (The same Palestinian poll found 89 percent criticizing a U.S. attack on Afghanistan, with 92 percent believing that it would lead to more attacks on the United States.) Many pro-U.S. governments were tactfully silent when the air strikes began, sensing the popular opposition. The unilateralism of the U.S. response was especially criticized; Iran -- which had indicated its willingness to support a UN action -- sharply condemned the U.S. attacks
3. What grievances fuel hatred for the U.S. in the Middle East?
Anti-American sentiment is widespread in the Middle East, not just among Islamic fundamentalists. This anti-Americanism has a variety of sources. Some comes from specific U.S. policies in the region -- backing Israeli oppression of Palestinians, enforcing devastating sanctions on the civilian population of Iraq, supporting authoritarian governments, often by deploying U.S. troops on land considered holy by Muslims. Some comes from resentment of Washington's economic and political arrogance more generally. And some comes from religious opposition to the secular world, of which the United States is the leading power, an intolerance fed by sexism, anti-Semitism, and other reactionary doctrines. One indication of the weight of all these factors is provided by the videotape Osama bin Laden released on October 7 -- not because it tells us anything about the motives of bin Laden (who is probably totally unconcerned with oppressed or suffering people, hoping only to precipitate a holy war engulfing the entire region) -- but because bin Laden is an astute judge of what issues inflame people. In that video, bin Laden referred to 80 years of Muslim humiliation, Israeli oppression of Palestinians, Iraqi starvation, and the atom bombs dropped on Japan. America, he warned, "will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine, and before all the army of infidels depart the land of Muhammad...." He felt these were the issues that people hearing him would be moved by, not an attack on Hollywood, much less democracy.
4. Does trying to understand/explain the grievances of the people of the Middle East constitute excusing bin Laden, excusing terror, softness on fascism, etc.
When some students killed their classmates at Columbine high school, people of good will tried to figure out the causes for such horrible events. In so doing, they were hardly justifying or excusing the heinous slaughter. The killers may have had some neo-Nazi sympathies (choosing Hitler's birthday as the day for their assault) -- but this didn't change our obligation to examine the deeper causes of adolescent alienation, to discover how schools might contribute to that alienation and what they could to do reduce it. No grievance of oppressed people can excuse or justify what happened on September 11. (As a PLO official declared: "It is true that there is injustice, terrorism, killing and crimes in Palestine, but that does not justify at all for anybody to kill civilians in New York and Washington.") But if we want to understand and reduce the widespread anti-Americanism that allows terrorism to find fertile soil, we need to attend to the grievances.
5. What is Terrorism?
Dictionary definitions indicate it is creating terror, employing fear for political purposes. More aptly, terrorism is attacking and terrifying civilian populations in order to force the civilians' governments to comply with demands. So Hitler's bombing of London was terror bombing, unlike his attacks on British military bases. The issue isn't what weapon is used, but who is the target and what is the motive. For terrorism the target is innocent civilians. The motive is political, impacting their government's behavior. Attacks on the public for private gain are not terrorism, but crime. Attacks on a military for political purposes are not terrorism, but acts of war.
6. Are Bin Laden and his network terrorists?
Bin Laden has issued public statements calling for the killing of U. S. civilians, among others. Evidence presented at trials compellingly ties the bin Laden network to terrorist attacks (the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the U. S. embassies in Africa in 1998). So even apart from Sept. 11, there is no doubt that bin Laden and Al Qaeda are terrorists.
7. Is the Taliban terrorist?
In its treatment of the Afghan people -- especially women and religious minorities -- the Taliban has behaved in a terrorist manner. It has allowed bin Laden to establish training camps on its territory and prior to September 11, 2001, rejected UN demands that it turn bin Laden over to the United States. There have been no specific charges by the United States regarding any direct Afghan support for international terrorism. Prior to Sept. 11, Afghanistan was not on the U. S. State Department's (rather selective) list of nation's engaging in state terrorism.
8. Is Hamas a terrorist group?
Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine engage in bombings of Israeli civilians. Despite the fact that Palestinians are oppressed, these attacks constitute terrorism. There can be no justification for blowing up civilians in a Sbarro's pizzeria or a Tel Aviv nightclub. These organizations are not the only terrorists, however. The Israeli government has killed huge numbers of Palestinian civilians. These acts too are terrorism. One terrorism does not justify or excuse the other. The United States has been backing -- with military, economic, and diplomatic support -- Israeli terrorism.
9. Is the U.S. government terrorist?
When the U.S. government targets civilians with the intention of pressuring their governments, yes, it is engaging in terrorism. Regrettably, this is not uncommon in our history. Most recently, imposing a food and drug embargo on a country - Iraq - with the intention of making conditions so difficult for the population that they will rebel against their government, is terrorism (with food and medicine as the weapons, not bombs). Bombing civilian centers and the society's public infrastructure in Kosovo and Serbia, again with the intent of coercing political outcomes, was terrorism. And now, attacking Afghanistan (one of the world's poorest countries) and hugely aggravating starvation dangers for its population with the possible loss of tens of thousands, or more lives, is terrorism. We are attacking civilians with the aim of attaining political goals unrelated to them - in this case hounding bin Laden and toppling the Taliban.
10. Why did the World Trade Center terrorists do it?
We can't know, of course, but we can surmise. The September 11 attack was a grotesquely provocative act against a super power. No doubt many of those involved felt great anger and desperation due to U.S. policies in the region. But these attacks didn't alleviate such problems. The U.S. response is predictably violent and as any anyone would anticipate, reactionary forces have benefited in the U.S. and around the world.
But perhaps provoking the United States was precisely the intent. By provoking a massive military assault on one or more Islamic nations, the perpetrators may have sought to set off a cycle of terror and counter-terror, precipitating a holy war between the Islamic world and the West, leading, in their hopes, to the overthrow of all insufficiently Islamic regimes and the unraveling of the United States, just as the Afghan war contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union.
But if provocation rather than grievances motivated the planners of the terror strikes against the U.S., this wouldn't make grievances irrelevant. Whatever the planners' motives, they still needed to attract capable, organized, and skilled people, not only to participate, but even to give their lives to the planner's suicidal agenda. Deeply-felt grievances provide a social environment from which fanatics recruit and garner support.
11. What is the legal way of dealing with terrorism?
In our world, the only alternative to vigilantism is that guilt should be determined by amassing of evidence that is then assessed in accordance with international law by the United Nations Security Council or other appropriate international agencies.
Punishment should be determined by the UN as well, and likewise the means of implementation. The UN may arrive at determinations that one or another party likes or not, as with any court, and may also be subject to political pressures that call into question its results or not, as with any court. But that the UN is the place for determinations about international conflict is obvious, at least according to solemn treaties signed by the nations of the world.
Thus, to pursue a legal approach means assembling evidence of culpability and presenting it to the UN or the World Court. It means those agencies undertaking to apprehend and prosecute culprits. It does not involve victims overseeing retaliation without even demonstrating guilt, much less having legal sanction, much less in a manner that increases the sum total of terrorism people are suffering and the conditions that breed potential future terrorism
12. If all terrorists were pursued through legal channels, what would the international response have been to the September 11 attacks?
Presumably, if provided proof of culpability, UN agencies would seek to arrest guilty parties. They would first seek to negotiate extradition. If a host government failed to comply, as a last resort they could presumably send in a force to extract guilty parties. But these actions would be taken in accord with international law, by forces led by international agencies and courts, in a manner respecting civilian safety, and consistent with further legitimating rather than bypassing respect for law and justice.
13. If all terrorists were pursued through legal channels, what would the international response have been to the embargo of Iraq, the bombing of Kosovo and Serbia, and the bombing of Afghanistan?
14. Is what the U. S. is doing consistent with a legal approach?
These acts, among many others, violate international law in many respects, not least because they harm civilians. Presumably, then, were international legal channels strengthened and respected, aggrieved parties could bring these and other cases to legal attention, leading to diverse prosecutions, many of which would be aimed at officials from the U.S.
To not present evidence, to decide guilt rather than respect institutions of international law, to prosecute not only presumed culprits but a whole population suffering terror and perhaps starvation--of course, international law has been violated. Worse, the mechanism for attaining illegal vigilante prosecution has been a policy which knowingly and predictably will kill many, perhaps even huge numbers of innocent civilians. We take access to food away from millions and then give food back to tens of thousands while bombing the society into panic and dissolution.
The answer is not to reduce the prospects of terror attacks. The U.S. government and all mainstream media warn their likelihood will increase, both out of short term desire to retaliate, and, over the longer haul, due to producing new reservoirs of hate and resentment. The answer is not to get justice. Vigilantism is not justice but the opposite, undermining international norms of law. The answer is not to reduce actual terror endured by innocent people. Our actions are themselves hurting civilians, perhaps in tremendous numbers.
All rhetoric aside, the answer is that the U.S. wishes to send a message and to establish a process. The message, as usual, is don't mess with us. We have no compunction about wreaking havoc on the weak and desperate. The process, also not particularly original since Ronald Regan and George Bush senior had similar aspirations, is to legitimate a "war on terrorism" as a lynchpin rationale for both domestic and international policy-making.
This “war on terrorism” is meant to serve like the Cold War did. We fight it with few if any military losses. We use it to induce fear in our own population and via that fear to justify all kinds of elite policies from reducing civil liberties, to enlarging the profit margins of military industrial firms, to legitimating all manner of international polices aimed at enhancing U.S. power and profit, whether in the Mideast or elsewhere.
For more on U.S. Motives, see also:
15. Which nations have been supporting the US war in Afghanistan and why?
The press refers to the "U.S.-led" war on Afghanistan, but in fact, except for the first day when some British Tomahawk missiles were fired, only U.S. military forces have so far been engaged in combat. Various nations -- in Europe, Canada, and so on -- have offered troops if the U.S. so requests. So far there has been no U.S. request, presumably because Washington wants to maintain total control of the operation.
No Arab nation has offered troops or even allowed its territory to be (openly) used for offensive military operations. While many regimes do not support the Taliban, they fear public reaction if they should participate in an attack on a Muslim country. Pakistan is providing bases that may in the future be used for helicopter raids. This was a reluctant response to U.S. cancellation of its debt, lifting of sanctions (for its nuclear weapons program), and an apparent U.S. guarantee that it would have a say in the future government of Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, which at first offered bases only for humanitarian operations, seems to have agreed to let the U.S. use the bases as it wishes, in return for a U.S. security guarantee.
Various other nations -- such as Russia and China -- have offered support, though non-military, to the United States, hoping thereby to have U.S. support as they battle their own domestic secessionist movements which they accuse of terrorism (in Chechnya and China's western Muslim Xinjiang province).
16. What has been the role of the UN in the current war in Afghanistan?
The Security Council passed two strong resolutions following September 11, but neither one authorized the use of military force, and especially not unilateral military force. The New York Times reported (7 Oct. 2001): "A sign of Washington's insistence that its hands not be tied was its rejection of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan's entreaties that any American military action be subject to Security Council approval, administration officials said." Still less has the United States been willing to have the United Nations have control over the response to terrorism, including over any military operations.
17. What are the reasons to oppose U.S. bombing of Afghanistan?
Guilt hasn't yet been proven.
Bombing violates International Law.
Bombing will be unlikely to eliminate those responsible for the September 11 attacks.
Huge numbers of innocent people will die.
Bombing will reduce the security of U.S. citizens.
For in-depth discussion of the 5 points, please see also:
18. But isn't it obvious bin Laden did it?
There are many reasons to suspect bin Laden's responsibility for September 11 and his recent video gloating does not lessen these suspicions. But although Secretary of State Colin Powell initially promised that evidence of responsibility would be presented, the Bush administration "decided it was not necessary to make public its evidence against Mr. bin Laden" (NYT, 7 Oct. 2001). The British government did prepare a document, "Responsibility for the Terrorist Atrocities in the United States, 11 September 2001," (http://www.pm.gov.uk) which summarized real evidence regarding Osama bin Laden's involvement in earlier terrorist acts and noted the similarity of the Sept. 11 acts to the earlier acts (no warning given, intent to kill maximum number of people -- true of many terrorist acts), but provided very little information specifically regarding the events of September 11. The two crucial claims are contained in these statements, presented with no supporting evidence at all:
Since 11 September we have learned that one of Bin Laden's closest and most senior associates was responsible for the detailed planning of the attacks.
There is evidence of a very specific nature relating to the guilt of Bin Laden and his associates that is too sensitive to release.
Our guess, having no access to intelligence sources, is that bin Laden does indeed bear responsibility for the horrible deeds of September 11. But wars should not be started on the basis of our, or anybody else's, guess. Certainly public opinion in the Arab and Islamic world is going to want more convincing evidence. "A decent respect to the opinions of mankind," said the Declaration of Independence, required a public statement of the causes which impelled the American colonists to a war of independence. Likewise, a decent respect for the opinion of the international community would require that before any action evidence of responsibility be presented. Washington might be satisfied with the evidence, but many others may not be.
We know of historical cases where U. S. officials have falsified evidence. (For example, in 1981 Washington issued a White Paper claiming to prove "Communist Interference in El Salvador"; Raymond Bonner promptly showed this to be "a textbook case of distortion, embellishments, and exaggeration.") But the issue goes beyond any deliberate manipulation of evidence. It's simply a basic principle of justice that people should not be judges in their own case. We know of other cases where U. S. officials were quick to act on totally inadequate evidence (as when they bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, alleging its involvement in producing chemical weapons, a claim that dissolved when subjected to examination).
19. Is it possible that there is decisive evidence, but that its disclosure would compromise important intelligence gathering capabilities?
Certainly it would be reasonable for a government to refuse to reveal intelligence sources which could help prevent future terrorist plots. No one is asking for names of informants and so on, but conceivably some evidence might point clearly to a specific informant. Consider, however, the following:
the U. S. was able to present evidence in court regarding the 1998 attacks on the U. S. embassies in Africa;
even if evidence could not be made fully public, could it not be shared with the Security Council for their assessment? Sharing the evidence with Britain and the rest of NATO is better than nothing, but not the same as sharing it with the body having legal authority for international peace and security;
some evidence (its nature and extent unknown) was apparently shared with Pakistan -- before its intelligence chief was sacked for being too sympathetic to the Taliban.
If there is evidence suitable for Pakistan, it's hard to see why that couldn't be made public. Washington, however, does not want to establish the precedent that it has an obligation to present evidence.
20. But didn't Afghanistan reject out-of-hand US demand to turn over bin Laden?
The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan stated on October 5, "We are prepared to try him if America provides solid evidence of Osama bin Laden's involvement in the attacks on New York and Washington." Asked if bin Laden could be tried in another country, the ambassador said, "We are willing to talk about that, but ... we must be given the evidence" (Toronto Star, 6 Oct. 2001, p. A4). One report (AP, 7 Oct. 2001) quoted the ambassador as saying that legal proceedings could begin even before the United States offered any evidence: "Under Islamic law, we can put him on trial according to allegations raised against him and then the evidence would be provided to the court." Washington responded that its demands were non‑negotiable and initiated its bombardment of Afghanistan. Was the Taliban offer serious? Could it have been the basis for further concessions? Who knows? Washington never pursued it. But do we really want a world where countries unilaterally issue ultimatums and then unilaterally decide whether the terms of the ultimatum have been met, cut off further negotiations, and open fire?
We might note that some other countries have refused to extradite accused terrorists, even when substantial evidence is presented. For example, Haiti has convicted Emmanuel Constant in absentia for being one of the leaders of paramilitary forces that killed thousands of civilians during the junta years in the early 1990s (with no small measure of U.S. complicity). Washington has refused to turn him over.
21. But can you negotiate with terrorists?
For the most part, you can't, but that is irrelevant to the issues at hand. You can't negotiate with serial killers, either, or with people who go berserk and shoot up their workmates in a post office. We don't deduce from the intransigence of perpetrators that the victims or the victims families should therefore become vigilantes and seek to arrest the culprits. We don't deduce that they should form lynch mobs, seeking the culprits dead or alive. And most important, we don't deduce that they should go after the families of the culprits, or their neighbors families, of the restaurant where they had breakfast.
That one can't sensibly negotiate with bin Laden and Al Qaeda - which may or may not be true - would only tell us that one shouldn't negotiate with them, not that we shouldn't pursue sensible channels of legal redress and prosecution, not that we should become vigilantes, not that we should adopt a lynch mob mentality, and that we should even go beyond that to attacking innocent bystanders in huge numbers, starving and otherwise terrorizing them.
22. But doesn't the U.S. have the right of self-defense?
If under attack, any country has the right to repel the attack, according to international law. But the right of self-defense is not unlimited. The standard precedent is the Caroline case, which held that action in self-defense should be confined to cases in which the "necessity of that self-defense is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation." Thus, self defense would permit the United States to shoot down attacking enemy planes, but not to wage a war half way around the globe a month after a terrorist attack, a war that U.S. officials say might go on for years. Instead, this is the sort of situation that should be turned over to the United Nations for action.
But let's suppose someone doesn't like the above formulation. What norm would we want instead? If a country's civilian population is attacked, then that country has the right to determine the perpetrator to its own satisfaction, issue an ultimatum, determine on its own the adequacy of the response to the ultimatum, and attack the perpetrator's host country, causing great civilian harm. Would we really want this to be a universal norm? This would mean that Cubans could attack Washington on grounds that Miami harbors support for terrorists who have attacked Cuban civilians. Likewise, Iraqis, Serbs, and now Afghans, not to mention Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Colombians, Guatemalans, and so on, could all target Washington on grounds that the U.S. government has attacked or abetted attacks on their civilian populations ‑ and, for that matter, ironically, Washington can attack itself, on the grounds that it abetted the creation and arming of bin Laden's terror network which in turn attacked the U.S.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said that Britain was acting in self-defense because many British citizens died in the World Trade Center. But many Indian citizens also died; do we want India to issue an ultimatum to Pakistan (for its connections to bin Laden and other terror networks)? Do we want India to then decide whether Pakistan has met the terms of its ultimatum and if New Delhi decides no, then war ensues?
On October 14, the Taliban agreed to turn bin Laden over to a neutral country if the U.S. stopped the bombing. (We might note that a proposal to turn bin Laden over to a neutral country is not unreasonable, given the unlikelihood of a fair trial in a country whose president has declared that bin Laden was wanted "dead or alive.") The United States rejected the offer. Is this a decision that should be made unilaterally by Washington.
Is this the morality, legality, and practicality anyone could wishes to advocate for international relations?
23. But isn't the U.S. getting a vast coalition of support?
There was a vast outpouring of sympathy for the victims of the September 11 attacks. Many nations have indicated their willingness to participate in a campaign against terrorism. But, as indicated above (question 15), only one other nation thus far -- Britain -- has participated in the military actions against Afghanistan. More importantly, a coalition means a group of Washington's friends, which is not the same as obtaining legal international sanction for war.
24. What do we think about the Sept. 14th Congressional resolution (passed 98-0 in the Senate and 420-1 in the House) authorizing President Bush to use force?
No vote in a nation's legislature can permit that nation to behave contrary to international law. The Congressional resolution no more makes U.S. military action "right" than would a vote by India's legislature legitimate an attack on Pakistan or by Russia's legislature legitimate slaughter in Chechnya. Military actions that cause massive civilian harm as is now occurring in Afghanistan are wrong -- they meet our definition of terrorism -- no matter what the vote of a legislature may be.
One might also note how the members of the U.S. Congress -- with one courageous exception -- abdicated their responsibility. They are constitutionally assigned responsibility to provide a check on the arbitrary power of the executive branch. To pass a resolution authorizing the president to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons" is essentially saying that Congress wants no voice in assessing evidence, determining the appropriate way to respond to that evidence, or even whether we will go to war against one or several dozen countries.
25. But aren't the targets being bombed in Afghanistan legitimate targets?
First, if the agent of attack is illegitimate, no target it attacks is a legitimate one, even if the target might be proper were the agent someone else. Suppose Saddam Hussein decided to bomb Afghanistan on grounds he didn't like the role of the Taliban in abetting terror in the world and against the U.S. Even if he confined himself to targets entirely bearing upon the actions of terrorists and not significantly endangering civilians, still, we would say Hussein was acting illegally since he had no UN authorization to act, and we wouldn't temper that claim on the grounds he could be doing worse. The norm is general.
Even if the current U.S. bombings were internationally and legally sanctioned, thus not being carried out in vigilante style, not all targets are legitimate by any means. There is no justification in attacking in a manner that puts people at risk of starvation, that attacks civilian infrastructure, or that carries risk of substantial civilian deaths.
If the attacks had been initiated because bin Laden and his network were demonstrated guilty, and UN legal agencies called for their extradition, and the Taliban refused, and it became necessary to pursue the culprits in order to prosecute them, then yes, there could be a list of legitimate targets for such endeavors, but only if the seven million people at risk of starvation were not endangered, and if means of assault could be found which -- unlike those currently being utilized -- could be well controlled without causing terrible accidents.
On October 12, Mary Robinson, the UN's Commissioner for Human Rights, called on the United States to halt the bombing so that food could reach up to two million desperate Afghan civilians (Independent, 13 Oct. 2001)
26. But aren't civilian casualties being avoided in Afghanistan?
If the question is, could the U.S. bomb in a fashion to induce greater civilian casualties, of course the answer is yes, so that in that sense it is avoiding many possible casualties. And if the question is, is it good that the U.S. isn't causing more deaths by our actions, again the answer is yes. But the question arises, why cause as many as we are? Why aggravate the desperate food situation to the point of possible calamity? Why attack in a manner that disrupts all social life and, inevitably, hits many civilians with bomb impact? This is not going to diminish hatred of the U.S. nor the violence in the region, but increase both. There is no justification for all this other than the desires to propel a state of war as a policy that benefits U.S. elites. If the food disaster materializes at the levels feared by aid and UN agencies, the catastrophe will be without historical parallel for such a short engagement
27. But aren't U.S. food drops a sincere effort to help the people of Afghanistan?
The first week's airdrops, we're told, averaged about 37,500 rations per day. One ration is 3 meals, or one person‑day of food. There are between 3‑7 million people at risk of starvation. Thus, in order to alleviate the danger, the rate of airdrops has to increase over the largest drops so far by a factor of between one and two hundred.
Bush pledged $324 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Each ration costs $4.25. Let us assume that there are only 3 million at risk of starvation, that every ration will reach one of those people, and that every dollar of that $324 million is going to rations (and not to the planes, fuel, staff, medicine, or any other item associated with delivery). Under these fantastically generous assumptions, there will be enough food to feed these people for 25 days. The reality is much worse: millions are now fleeing the bombing, and will not sow their crops of winter wheat. Much of the dropped food will land in minefields and remote areas. Most of Bush's money will not be spent on food. And there are probably 7.5 million in danger of starving, not 3 million. But even in this scenario the money is insufficient to last for the winter. Also for comparison, $40 billion was appropriated for the war effort, and a single B-2 bomber costs $2.1 billion.
To first aggravate the starvation danger faced by roughly 7 million at risk people by creating internal bedlam and cutting off food transport and aid through closing borders and bombing, and to then drop food for about one out of every hundred of the at-risk people, assuming all these meals were even accessible as compared to being scattered across terrain littered with military mines, is not a serious approach to saving lives. Rather, as the U.S. policymakers and commentators have repeated ad nauseam, it is a public relations effort aimed to reduce opposition, and nothing more.
As Doctors Without Borders, one of the agencies that had been working in Afghanistan, put it, "What is needed is large scale convoys of basic foodstuffs.... Until yesterday the UN and aid agencies such as ourselves were still able to get some food convoys into Afghanistan. Due to the air strikes the UN have stopped all convoys, and we will find delivering aid also much more difficult." As for the U.S. airdrops, "Such action does not answer the needs of the Afghan people and is likely to undermine attempts to deliver substantial aid to the most vulnerable."
28. What about the anti-terrorism bill passed by Congress, isn't that a step in the right direction?
We need to distinguish between privileges and basic rights. Being able to get to an airport just 25 minutes before your flight is a privilege, not a basic right. We should be more than willing to give up this privilege if it is necessary for security. But we should insist on an extremely high burden of proof before we're willing to scuttle fundamental rights. There are good reasons to think that the provisions of the anti-terrorism bill go far beyond what is necessary for security. For example, the definition of terrorism in the bill would cover domestic political organizations engaging in civil disobedience.
29. How about the Bush administration's campaign to dry up terrorism's financial networks?
Terrorist organizations have been able to finance their operations by laundering their money through banks. But cracking down on money laundering requires challenging the power of the banking industry and of the wealthy who use off shore banks to hide their assets something the politicians in thrall to the rich have been loathe to do. So U.S. officials have failed to use the legal tools they had to investigate terrorism's financial trail and have failed to request the new tools they needed. In May 2001, the U.S. blocked an effort by the OECD (the main industrial nations) to crack down on bank secrecy. (See Lucy Komisar, "U.S. Bank Laws Fund Terrorists," [AlterNet], 21 Sept. 2001, http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=11556; Tim Weiner and David Cay Johnston, "Roadblocks Cited in Efforts to Trace bin Laden Money," NYT, 20 Sept. 2001.) U.S. officials consider Saudi officials especially uncooperative in freezing bin Laden's assets (NYT, 10 Oct. 2001). Ultimatums anyone?
30. How about supporting the Northern Alliance, doesn't that hold out positive promise for Afghanistan?
The Northern Alliance have in the past demonstrated a facility for barbarism only minimally less horrible than that of the Taliban. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who have been struggling for years for democracy and against fundamentalism, have warned against allowing the Northern Alliance to come to power.
This strategy of the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" has been used before with disastrous results. This was the logic that led to U.S. and Western support for the Mujahideen, leading to the Taliban, and aid and support for Saddam Hussein, and so on. It is not hard to predict that support for the Northern Alliance will, in years ahead, lead to still more travail and horror for Afghanistan, for the region, and perhaps for the world beyond.
31. How about invading Iraq, won't that be good for Iraqis?
An influential group of Pentagon officials and national security elites have been urging that the United States use this opportunity to take military action to depose Saddam Hussein. Hussein is a monster and many Iraqis would be thrilled to see him go. But going to war against him without the most compelling evidence of his responsibility for the September 11 attacks would lead to massive instability in the Muslim world -- with horrific human consequences. A recent meeting of Islamic nations did not condemn the U.S. bombing Afghanistan (thanks to the efforts of U.S. allies), but all agreed that any further military action would be utterly unacceptable. Whatever benefit the Iraqi people might obtain from the deposing of Hussein would likely be outweighed by the horrors of a war in Iraq and of holy wars from North Africa to Southeast Asia. The simplest way to help the people of Iraq would be to lift the economic sanctions that have caused such devastating hardship.
Despite their eagerness to link Saddam Hussein to September 11, Israeli, Jordanian, and U.S. intelligence have found no connection (NYT, 11 Oct. 2001). Though both Al Qaeda and Hussein hate the United States, Hussein is not an Islamicist, and Al Qaeda considers him an infidel.
At the moment it seems as if the State Department, with its strategy of just going after Afghanistan, at least for now, will prevail over Defense Department officials who want to go after Iraq. But the United States delivered a note to the Security Council saying that its self-defense measures might require it to attack other countries. (Apparently this sentence was added by the White House to the U.S. note without informing Secretary of State Colin Powell [NYT, 12 Oct. 2001].) Thus, we must await the result of the bureaucratic struggle within the Bush administration to see whether we'll go to war against Iraq. Is this a decision that Congress should have declined to get involved in? More crucially, is this a decision that should be up to the United States government rather than the United Nations?
32. How about increasing U.S. defense and military spending?
Does it make sense for some effort to be made to develop means of better predicting and interdicting terrorist attacks? Yes. Can one make a cogent argument that a large country needs some military expenditure to be in position to repel attacks, and to even engage in war should that horrible eventuality come to pass? Yes, though many will reasonably disagree. But does the U.S. need to spend not only $343 billion as in the year 2000, which was 69 percent greater than that of the next five highest nations combined (with Russia spending less than one-sixth what the United States does, and Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, Iran, and Syria spending in total $14.4 billion combined and Iran accounting for 52 percent of this total), but still more to accomplish such security? No, the rush to spend more on militarism has nothing whatever to do with security against terrorism and has everything to do with military profiteering.
33. How about building a national missile defense system?
Such a system has nothing to do with protecting against terrorism. Such a system in fact destabilizes world prospects for peace by propelling a new arms race as well as a launch on warning mentality in other countries. The system is pursued by the U.S. government largely as a sop to high tech industry and profit making and should be opposed on those grounds, and due to the danger it places all humanity in.
34. How about repealing the executive order prohibiting the assassination of foreign leaders?
The U.S. government has been targeting foreign leaders for a long time, perhaps under an explicit waiver from the executive order, perhaps not. For example, the U.S. air force targeted not just Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 1986 -- on the grounds that his barracks were command and control centers -- but (according to Seymour Hersh) even his family. Today, the U.S. is hitting the homes of Taliban leaders. So it is hard to imagine that Washington needs a freer hand. In situations short of war, a basic principle of our jurisprudence is that people should be brought to trial, not subjected to extra-judicial execution.
35. How about using racial profiling to counter terrorism in the United States?
We need to distinguish between two different kinds of situations. Consider first the sort of situation that even strong opponents of racial profiling agree would be appropriate police work: "Police receive a credible tip that a white man armed with a bomb is somewhere in an office building. They surround the building and then enter it. The police examine white men more closely than those who are non-white." (See Randall Kennedy, Race, Justice, and the Law, Vintage, 1997, pp. 141, 161.) In these kinds of emergency situations, it would be reasonable to scrutinize whites more closely (or blacks or Middle Easterners, depending on the situation). But this is very different from making the targeting of a particular ethnic group a routine part of police work. Doing so involves two real dangers: (1) It's not likely to be very effective. The suspected 20th hijacker, a native Moroccan, looks black, not Middle Eastern. And next time, Islamic terrorists might use an Asian-looking Indonesian or a white-looking Bosnian. Recall too the pregnant Irish woman in 1988 whose luggage contained a bomb, put there unbeknownst to her by her Palestinian boyfriend. (2) It's likely to undermine an important protection against terrorism, namely, the cooperation of the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States. If these people are treated abusively, they are not likely to come forward with information needed by the police.
So what happens when a Middle Eastern man gets on a plane and the flight crew doesn't feel safe? In one notorious case, a Pakistani was removed from a Delta flight after the pilot said he wouldn't fly with the man on board. We can sympathize with the pilot's concern -- reporters have shown how easy it was even after September 11 to board a plane with knives and other weapons -- but his solution was totally unacceptable and discriminatory. The proper solution was for the pilot to say to Delta that security remains inadequate and demand that an armed air marshal be put on board. People's fears are real and legitimate. But we must try to address those fears in ways that do not scapegoat and abuse Arabs or Muslims or anybody else.
36. What is a "war on terrorism," and why is it being elevated as the capstone of U. S. foreign policy?
A war on terrorism is a project of attacking whomsoever the U.S. proclaims to be terrorist. In that sense it has many aspects. It can be used to assault opponents who are in fact terrorist, or other opponents who are not terrorist but are labeled to be. It can be used to induce fear in the U.S. population, so as to justify huge military expenditures, violations of civil liberties, and other elite‑benefiting policies ‑ much as the Cold War served the same purpose in decades past. It doesn't risk serious conflict as the scale of the engagements and their targets
,are entirely up to us. It doesn't legitimate international law, and so it does nothing to risk the being held accountable for our actions.
In other words, the War on Terrorism, like the Cold War in earlier decades, for reasons having little to nothing to do with its rhetorical aims is quite serviceable to elites, supposing that they are able to convince the population of its efficacy.
37. But what about the role of oil in the current crisis?
Oil of course plays a greater or lesser role in everything political and economic that happens in the Mideast, sometimes forefront, sometimes background. U.S. geopolitical and economic policies have as one of their prime motives maintaining access to and virtual control over oil sources around the globe. Pursuit of profit per se, and oil profit, are at the foundation of U.S. institutional arrangements in general, and thus impact our large-scale motives, of course. But the idea that oil is the proximate reason for the attack on Afghanistan, is very far fetched, just as the notion that the U.S. engaged in the war in Vietnam to gain access to minerals within Vietnam was far fetched. What is primarily at stake, geopolitically and economically, is not access to specific resources (or pipeline routes) but the rules of global interaction, the further delegitimating of international law, the development of a replacement for the Cold War - in this case, a war on terrorism - as well as actual concerns about terrorism itself.
38. So how long will the war in Afghanistan go on?
There is no way to say with confidence, but since Afghanistan is too poor to fight back and has so few targets of any substance or scale, serious assaults are unlikely to persist too long, one hopes. Nevertheless, Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, the chief of the British defense staff, said military operations "must expect to go through the winter and into next summer at the very least" and President Bush said that the military operation would continue for days, months or even years (NYT, 12 Oct. 2001).
To literally rip the fabric of the society to shreds and continue to obstruct possibilities for serious food aid could yield a holocaust, and even the most callous U.S. policy makers can't possibly be so ignorant as to conclude that the hate that would arise for the U.S. around the world would be in their interests. On the other hand, the war on terrorism has utility only insofar as the U.S. population can be kept focused on it, made fearful due to it, and thus willing to abrogate democratic influence and even a limited say over policymaking, as a result. So if the U.S. government can get away with doing so, a continuing attention to terrorism is to be anticipated.
39. What dangers will we face in South Asia and the Middle East as a result of the current war?
Perhaps the greatest danger is that a Taliban-like regime might come to power in Pakistan as a result of war-induced destabilization. Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan is no minor player: it has nuclear weapons. Even with sober leaders, Pakistan has pursued highly reckless policies with regard to Kashmir, bringing it close to conflict with its nuclear armed neighbor, India.
More generally, there is the danger that the calls for holy war, largely ignored in the Muslim world in recent years, will now gain a wider following.
40. But won't the "war on terrorism" reduce terrorism, and isn't that worth it?
First, the attacks on civilians in Afghanistan, and the aggravation of the starvation conditions, is itself terrorist, greatly increasing the terrorism at play in the world.
Second, killing innocent civilians, as has already occurred and will increasingly occur, will likely create more terrorists in Afghanistan and more widely throughout the region. The New York Times reported (10/13/01) of an Afghan village struck by U.S. bombs, with many civilian casualties. "Maulvi Abdullah Haijazi, an elder from a nearby village, had come to assist. 'These people don't support the Taliban,' he said. 'They always say the Taliban are doing this or that and they don't like it. But now they will all fight the Americans. We pray to Allah that we have American soldiers to kill. These bombs from the sky we cannot fight.'" And when they can't kill U.S. soldiers, they can at least join a terror network. This is the bad fruit our rain from the sky nurtures—among survivors.
41. Wouldn't changing U.S. foreign policy under the threat of terrorism mean that we are giving in to terrorism?
Suppose a postal worker attacks his mates and some folks in the post office one morning. The government - not the surviving workers in the post office - moves to capture and prosecute the culprit (not to attack his neighbors, etc. ). But hopefully the government also looks into the conditions that contributed to the postal workers heinous acts, as well. Suppose it discovers that stress levels in post offices are abysmal and contribute to anger and personal dissolution leading to "going postal. " Would the government be giving in to criminal pressures if it advocated a reduction in stress in postal work? No, on the contrary the government would be acting sensibly to reduce just grievances that needed reduction in any event, and which would have the very good by-product of helping reduce the likelihood of other postal workers attacking their workmates.
The same logic holds in this case. For the U.S. to alter its foreign policy to not support despots abroad, to not punish civilian populations abroad, to not support unjust policies by allies abroad, to indeed try to redress huge injustices of economic impverishment abroad, are all choices that should occur in any event, in their own right, and whose implementation would also, as a desirable side benefit, reduce the conditions that breed the hate and desperation terrorism feeds on.
42. Does the U.S. support a Palestinian state? Should it?
The Bush administration has now declared that its vision for the solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict includes a Palestinian state. The Bush administration is now in line with the former Clinton administration. This is better than Bush's previous backtracking, but it is still very far from what is needed. Washington says the boundaries of the Palestinian state are to be worked out by the parties -- the Palestinians and Israel -- but that means that Israel has an effective veto over any settlement, and until there is a settlement, Palestinians remain under Israeli occupation. Everyone now says they support a Palestinian state, including Israel, but the crucial question is whether the specific terms address the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. The issue is not a few square kilometers of desert on one side of the border or the other, but whether there will be Israeli security zones carved out of the Palestinian state, whether Israeli security roads will traverse the Palestinian state, and whether Israeli settlements will remain. In addition, there are the questions of whether Israel will continue to control East Jerusalem which it conquered in 1967 and whether the Palestinians have to foreswear their right to return to lands from which they have been driven out. Until the United States is willing to use its influence to pressure Israel to accept real self-determination for Palestinians, the problem will remain.
43. What should the U.S. have done in response to September 11?
The U.S. government's guiding principle ought to have been to assure the security, safety, and well-being of U.S. citizens without detracting from the security, safety, and well-being of others.
Any response should have avoided targeting civilians or so-called dual-use targets and should have been carried out according to the UN Charter. We should have sought freely-offered Security Council authorization with the UN retaining control of any response.
For more specific recommendations, made before the bombing began, see also:
44. What other policies should our government be following to reduce the likelihood of people will undertake terrorist agendas?
It isn't crazy, in the U.S. to have locks on some doors, etc. But it is wise to try to enact policies that reduce poverty and desperation as well, not only because it is moral to do so to benefit those suffering, but because it will dramatically reduce inclinations to steal. Similarly, internationally, it isn't crazy to expend some energies and resources guarding against terrorist attack. But it is wise to try to enact policies that reduce conditions of poverty and disenfranchisement, not only because it is moral to do so to benefit those suffering, but because it will dramatically reduce inclinations to terrorize and prospects for finding allies willing to abet that terrorism.What else could we do? offers some suggestions: a large increase of funding for the public health infrastructure (which is today inadequate to deal with a serious biological or chemical terror), funding programs to secure or neutralize Russian nuclear material and to prevent Russian weapons scientists from being exported, stop exporting hand-held guns that can bring down airplanes. Having the federal government take over airport security is a suggestion we made previously; right now the Bush administration opposes Congressional legislation to this effect because it will increase big government. Richard Garwin has additional suggestions. All these make sense. And they are likely to enhance our security, while war is likely to do the opposite.
45. The peace movement says "Justice, Not War. " But with terrorists, how can justice be achieved without war?
First, it can't be achieved via war because, in this case, war kills huge numbers of innocents, reduces the attentiveness to law and justice, and creates huge reservoirs of hate fueling future terrorists possibilities.
Second, it can be achieved without war, however, by following the norms of international law, which, if need be, may even involve military aspects along with diplomacy and other features - but not war as in one country, or a pair, attacking another.
46. In what ways if any should the peace movement adjust its positions in the light of Sept. 11?
Peace movements in industrialized nations before September 11 should have attuned themselves to unjust and horrific violence that victimized the weak and was engaged to benefit the powerful. The same holds now.
Peace movements in industrialized nations before September 11 should have opposed unjust wars, particularly perpetrated by their own countries, and any policies making such wars more likely or more brutal. The same holds now.
Peace movements in industrialized nations before September 11 should have examined institutional causes for wars, seeking to reduce those causes as much as possible. The same holds now.
So did anything profound change calling for re-thinking by peace movements?
Yes, one thing did change, quite dramatically. For the first time some of the abhorrent violence has been turned toward the civilian populations of the developed nations. This means that defensive motives will enter developed nation's calculations vis-à-vis international relations with poor countries not solely rhetorically, but in fact. Peace movements will have to pay attention to that new reality even as they also pay attention to on-going structural causes of war and injustice.
47. What should be the relation of other movements to the peace movement, and vice versa?
Winning gains against intransigent elites depends on convincing them that to ignore demands will lead to more losses for them than to meet demands. What accomplishes this is always the specter of growing numbers of people taking the side of dissidents, becoming sufficiently aroused and impassioned to work to recruit still more allies, and to manifest their dissent in demonstrations and civil disobedience, and especially of growing numbers whose concerns begin to transcend immediate issues and call into question broader and even more important institutional allegiances of elites.
Thus, peace movements, anti-racist movements, labor movements, anti-capitalist movements, ecology movements, feminist movements, movements against capitalist globalization, movements for great democracy or against incursions on freedom, and any other social movements will benefit to the extent they mutually support one another and convince elites that to ignore their focus is to risk enlarged opposition not only on that issue, but on all others as well. They will suffer losses in their efficacy to the extent that they are isolated from one another, or even pitted against one another
Peace movements and other movements should support and even take up one another's struggles, to the extent circumstances and resources permit